|Paul Sakuma / Associated Press|
|Despite playing in obscurity in Oakland, Zach Miller has stiffarmed his way into the consciousness of fans.|
On the eve of training camp, front office executives scour their rosters looking for a few young players poised to take their game to the next level.
The burgeoning stars have teased coaches and scouts with short-term flashes of brilliance, but various circumstances prevented them from making consistent contributions on a full-time basis. Some spent the early portion of their careers playing behind established veterans at their positions, while others emerge from relative obscurity to man key roles in the rotation. Regardless of their path, these budding headliners show glimpses of their immense potential prior to their big seasons.
With an eye firmly affixed toward finding the league's next crop of stars, let's take a look at 10 up-and-comer players set become household names in 2009:
1. Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders, TE
Few outside of the Black Hole recognize Miller's name, but the third-year pro's game suggests that he may be on the cusp of reaching the ranks of the elite. Miller led all tight ends with a 13.9 yards per catch average (minimum 50 receptions), and ranked as the eighth-best pass catcher at the position. With a game that rivals former Raiders greats Dave Casper and Todd Christensen, Miller is well on his way to making himself a household name.
2. Donnie Avery, St. Louis Rams, WR
The electrifying speedster is slated to serve as the Rams' No. 1 receiver after the team jettisoned veteran star, Torry Holt, in the offseason. While thrusting the second-year pro into a prominent role appears to be a risky proposition, Avery's spectacular flashes as a rookie indicates his readiness for primetime. With no other established threats in the passing game, Avery is poised to put up big numbers as the team's top target.
3. Tramon Williams, Green Bay Packers, CB
The former undrafted free agent is on the cusp of becoming one of the league's best young cornerbacks. The third-year pro tallied five interceptions a season ago, and manned both corner spots in superb fashion during a nine-week stint as a fill-in starter for Al Harris and Charles Woodson. While Williams is slated to serve as the Packers' nickel corner in 2009, the blossoming cover man is on the verge of becoming a household name as a dynamic playmaker at the position.
4. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers, LB
The Steelers' 2008 first-round pick showed flashes of his immense potential while recording five sacks as a rotational player last season. The ultra-athletic defender seamlessly transitioned to the inside linebacker position as a rookie, and gets his chance to play as a full-time starter in place of Larry Foote. Given Dick LeBeau's willingness to dial up pressure from all angles, Timmons could become a rare double digit sack artist from his interior spot, and cement his place as one of the rising stars in the league.
5. Parys Haralson, San Francisco 49ers, LB
The three-year veteran made waves last season after tallying eight sacks in 10 starts for the 49ers at outside linebacker. Harrelson's surprising production gave the team a legitimate presence off the edge for the first time since Julian Peterson departed in 2005, and his growth as a rusher enabled the team to keep Justin Smith at defensive end. If the 49ers' defense is to ascend to the ranks of the elite, it will be keyed by a stellar performance from Harrelson this season.
6. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills, RB
The former practice squad player has traveled a long, hard road to become a quality back in the league, but he is poised to make a significant impact in his third season. Jackson has averaged 4.6 yards per carry while serving as Marshawn Lynch's backup, and has topped the 100-yard mark twice in his young career. With Lynch suspended for the first three games of the season, Jackson will have a chance to shine early this year in Buffalo.
7. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers, FS
The Chargers' unsung difference maker has shown an uncanny knack for coming up with turnovers during his first two seasons. In addition, the gritty third-year pro has emerged as one of the team's top tacklers despite his diminutive size for the position. With new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera placing a great emphasis on generating turnovers, it is quite possible that Weddle will rank as one of the league leaders in thefts in 2009.
8. Jason Jones, Tennessee Titans, DT
The disruptive playmaker started to garner national attention after recording 3.5 sacks against the Steelers while filling in for an injured Albert Haynesworth in the Titans' lineup. The impressive showing provided a glimpse of Jones' burgeoning potential, and foreshadows the impact the second-year pro could make as the new centerpiece of the team's defense. The Titans have been derided for not doing enough to retain the services of Haynesworth, but Jones' emergence as a difference-maker may render those criticisms moot.
9. Stewart Bradley, Philadelphia Eagles, MLB
The unheralded Bradley quietly keyed the team's ferocious defense with his stellar play in the middle. The third-year pro led the team in tackles, and thrived as the designated free hitter against the run. Although others on the star-studded Eagles' defense receive most of the acclaim, it is the hard-hitting Bradley who steadies the dominating unit.
10. Jared Gaither, Baltimore Ravens, OT
The third-year pro has admirably handled the pressure of replacing a legend (Jonathan Ogden) at the Ravens' left tackle position. The former Maryland standout anchored the Ravens' punishing rushing attack by dominating defenders at the point of attack with his superior strength and athleticism. Though Gaither remains a work in progress as a pass blocker, his promising skills and upside gives him an opportunity to ascend to the ranks of the elite by season's end.